Black Studies Department Reflects a Decade of Change

To the Harvard community, a community that takes pride in its ability to rationally discuss conflicting points of view, the 1968-69 academic year was traumatic. The radical student activism which culminated in the April strike produced shock waves that penetrated every level of the University. Harvard's black students, through the Association of African and Afro-American Students (AAAAS), joined with the larger student body in demanding restructuring and a general educational reform of the University. But the vital energy of AAAAS was focused on a more specific goal: a Department of Afro-American Studies.

Although the demand for Black Studies programs, at Harvard as elsewhere, surfaced only as black student protest escalated during the later years of the 1960's, that demand resulted from black student activism which spanned the entire decade. Substantive changes occurred in the tenor and direction of that activism. Because the concept of Black Studies is rooted in the racial activism of the 1960's, one cannot fully understand its meaning-nor its potential impact-without understanding the situation that produced it.


In February of 1960 four students from a Negro college in North Carolina sat-in at a local restaurant to protest its policy of racial discrimination. Their act of protest spread first to other Negro colleges, and then grew rapidly into a movement as black college students became during the next four years the vanguard of an intensive struggle for civil rights in the South.

Several elements characterized black student activism during this period, distinguishing it from the pattern that was to later develop. Its target, broadly speaking, was the mores of Southern society; the Establishment, both in the university, and in the federal government, was considered an ally, not an enemy. There was none of the hostility toward it that became so widespread after 1965. The Movement's nonviolent style influenced by the Christian pacifism of Martin Luther King won the admiration of liberal whites who were readily welcomed into it. And finally it had not yet linked itself with other radical movements aimed at American foreign policy, urban problems, or campus reform.

This pattern began to change in 1964 when it became clear that the accepted style of racial activism had produced little substantive progress.


The ghetto revolts which began in the summer of 1965 and the ensuing articulation of black nationalist sentiment-by former civil rights activists in many instances-both revealed and spurred the shift in the Movement to a more militant position. Their faith in the democratic process worn away by the slow process of change, black people soon discovered that anger and threats of violence could produce more results than soft-spoken appeals to white conscience. It was an important lesson, one which black students on white college campuses effectively utilized.

Prior to 1965 black students at these colleges were typically from the black middle class. Generally speaking they saw no conflict between themselves and the institutions in which they were enrolled or with the aspirations of the other (white) students. Cushioned from the worst excesses of racism, they adopted and even embellished upon the Protestant ethic.

This group attitude had changed consider ably by the fall of 1967. The new pulse and direction of the Black Movement had furnished the impetus for the formation of black student groups on white campuses, and the concurrent growth of militant student groups at Negro colleges. Black students, now highly politicized, readily accepted the efficacy of radical action as a means of winning their demands.

By 1965 the intensive efforts of white colleges, particularly those in the Far West and the Northeast, to recruit more blacks began to pay off-for example, the number of black students attending New England colleges more than doubled between 1966 and 1968.

Harvard admitted 35 black students into the Class of 1969, by far the largest black class in the school's history. Suddenly, the black student at Harvard became very visible. Unfortunately, like most other institutions in the country, the University mistook changes in appearance for changes in substance. The new group was thought of as blacks at Harvard had always been: merely Harvard students who happened to be black.

A substantial number of this new "liberated" black class were from urban ghettos, and had participated in civil rights activities. Many were, if not members, at least fellow travelers of SNCC. They did not consider themselves divorced by virtue of location from the problems of Black America.

"The ghetto is wherever I am," one black freshman succinctly remarked at the time.

"We are individuals on the white campus," another noted, "but just as importantly, we are black individuals on the white campus. The facts of color and race don't change in college."

Almost immediately these students began raising questions which dismayed those who had expected business to continue as usual, questions that eventually were transformed into demands for a department of Afro-American Studies.

From is inception in 1963, AAAAS had sought the addition of more courses exploring the facets of the Black experience to the university curriculum. But the administration, stating that the academic merit of such courses was questionable, turned a deaf ear to the organization. As time passed, their demands changed from that of merely adding a few courses to that of establishing an entire department.